The Century as Experiment:
Reading Poems for the Millennium
a review by
Loss Pequeño Glazier

Poems for the Millennium: the University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. Volume 1, From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude.
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris.

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Special thanks to Agni 44 1996, where this review first appeared.

The pressure upon anthologists is intense at the dawn of a new century; the fact of such a threshold seems to demand some canon or list that will define what we actually did in the nineteen somethings. Witness the large number of anthologies presently hitting the shelves and the amount of debate surrounding them. The most contentious of entrants into the arena of "the definitive anthology" are those that lay out a school-particularly of living writers-in order to circumscribe a field of "legitimate" activity. For example, on the front lines of how postmodern poetry should be defined, blows have been exchanged among a number of pugnacious tomes, including From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990, Postmodern Poetry: A Norton Anthology, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, American Poetry Since 1950: Innovators and Outsiders: An Anthology, and The Art of Practice: 45 Contemporary Poets.1 Though no one is excluded from having his or her favorite in this fracas, the point here is that there are stakes-and they seem high precisely because of a present need to define our century.

Anthologies are controversial because they define by excluding. They also enter a field fecund for debate because anthologies suggest that written works can be characterized by lineage or coherences and that some sort of map can be drawn. (Whether this map is considered definitive vs. propositional usually depends on the ego of the editor.) What alternatives are there to a view of writing as fixed, classifiable, and in need of order? If one looks at writing as practice rather than product, a much more flexible "history" can be charted. Thus an anthology can only begin to succeed when it positions its material within a history of practice rather than presenting its selections as a definition of what such a practice is. It is by this criterion that Poems for the Millennium succeeds impeccably. It is a surprisingly fresh and effective approach to anthologizing (not experienced perhaps since Technicians of the Sacred), an approach that not only seems to chart some poetic terrain but actually redefines the possibilities of the anthology while doing so. Poems for the Millennium is not an anthology of a specific school, nor of a specific nationality, nor of a rigidly asserted definition of style. What Poems for the Millennium offers is a selection of works that form a history of the practice of experimental writing itself, a crucial history of poetry in this century in the West. This anthology offers a collection that has not appeared elsewhere, one that might otherwise be difficult to come by, and is one, despite how you might wish to argue its shades of meaning, integral to the literary history of this century. Poems for the Millennium is of immediate interest to any reader or teacher of twentieth-century writing.

Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris are excellently suited to the task of presenting this history. Both are widely known poets who have been active for decades. Joris is a Luxembourg native who, fluent in many European languages, has also translated works by authors such as Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Pierre Duprey, Kurt Schwitters, and Paul Celan. Rothenberg, also a translator, has received much acclaim for editing two previous ground breaking anthologies, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe & Oceania and Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas. These anthologies not only presented a wealth of previously unavailable works, but changed the way many writers and teachers viewed literature itself

So why another anthology, especially given the present flood of well-intentioned collections of the poetry of this century? Because with all the canons, counter-canons, schools, and movements, no anthology of the history of innovation in our century has appeared. Further, views of modern poetry, in the words of Rothenberg and Joris, "have tended to play down the more revolutionary aspects of modernism in favor of the recognition of a handful

of 'major' figures, many of whom are celebrated precisely for their antiexperimental and antirevolutionary positions or for their adherence to a relatively conventional view of poetic traditions and formal possibilities." The editors were careful not to turn "the selection of authors into the projection of a new canon of famous names." Instead, they wish "to have the anthology serve a more useful function, as a mapping of the possibilities that have come down to us by the century's turning" (3).What else is missing from some of the competing major anthologies? One of the arguments of Poems for the Millennium is against the notion of the twentieth century as an "American century" in favor of an international view. How were works selected for this anthology? Rothenberg and Joris state carefully that their interests were not in "a superficial avant-gardism"; rather they sought to identify works which "Significantly test the limits of poetry, both from a structural and an experimental point of view" (13).

Poems for the Millennium begins with Stéphane Mallarmés Coup de dès of 1897, which, the editors state, "finished the nineteenth century's fade-out into an overly aestheticized Symbolism and marked the beginning of the twentieth's relentless transformations" (5) and covers major experimental movements typified by a strong presence of poets. The volume ends with Negritude, positing that movement "as the culminating moment of the modernist half of the twentieth century" and as "a developing response to the decentered/decentering universe of postcolonial reality" (7). This assertion is not only thought-provoking but helps set the literary record into its global and economic perspective. (I do wonder, however, if Langston Hughes and Harlem Renaissance writers might be similarly considered as responding to internal colonialism. It's a shame to see Hughes mixed into a larger, more general section when he may have shared a political perspective with the Negritude writers. Even worse, theirs is a rather sparsely constituted movement in this anthology.) Rothenberg and Joris do include most major modernist authors, but one real exhilaration provided by this volume is to see such authors out of their brigadier-general uniforms and in the ranks of the infantry. Exemplifying this fact, there is no section called "Modernism": Pound, Williams, H.D., are mixed in by birth date into galleries with a wide array of other writers. Such a de-canonization not only allows a fresh reading of authors who have been the mainstay of what we might call the information superhighway of modernism, but allows one to begin to think in terms of other possibilities of literary relation, peers, and context. It might be said that some of these well-known innovators, Pound, Stevens, and Eliot especially (whose The Waste Land is merely a place marker in this volume!) are much underrepresented. The radical recontextualizing undertaken by Rothenberg and Joris is ultimately a wild reading through the other texts of our century, a trip down the Route 66 of what really happened; it's not about the canon but about works equal in daring and vitality and commitment to those we have been trained to appreciate. If there is any flaw to this presentation (other than the intentional ones), despite its acute arguments for an informed politics and politics of language, it is the lack of a chronology of feminist practice or a presentation of some early writing breakthroughs made by women in the political position of being female.

How is this anthology different in its presentation of material? There are of course a limited number of choices available to any such collection. Authors may be presented alphabetically, by date of birth or publication, or within sections according to movement or affiliation. Poems for the Millennium manages to combine a number of these approaches in its innovative sequencing of writing. Much work is presented in tightly conceived "movement" sections (Futurisms, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Objectivism, and Negritude).These sections are supplemented by three other large sections, "larger, loosely chronological 'galleries' of individual poets, without a stress on particular affinities or interconnections between those represented" (12). The galleries then create the opportunity to present authors without stretching them when the affiliation is not immediate. A difference in presentation also occurs in this anthology's insistence on the importance of manifestoes and other documentary writings. Finally, eschewing the authoritative demeanor of note form, contextual information is delivered through "commentaries" for each movement and for individual poets in the galleries and "forerunners" and "origins" sections. The commentaries of course weave a continuing metatextual narrative; they are so engagingly written that it is also satisfying to simply skip through the pages of the book reading these brief expositions. The "forerunners" section makes perfect sense. The spirit of experimentalism documented here--poetry which shows "that poetry set free can free or open up the human mind" (l)--did not begin on any given date. It is useful to consider what following this thread back in literary history reveals. The "origins" section may make less sense. Its point is to stress larger ethnopoetic origins of writing and poetic speech in our century. This is an important point, of course, but one that is perhaps somewhat too sketchy in its seventy pages here for those familiar with Rothenberg's earlier large anthologies. The only drawback to this sectional configuration is at the beginning. "Origins" is followed by a "gallery" before the first historical section begins. Thus there are 190 pages of these loosely-connected poems before a first movement begins, a sizable portion of the book and a somewhat disorienting beginning for readers who may seek a better defined progression.

The biggest reward of Poems for the Millennium is how lavish, within a restricted economy, the editors have been with their attentions. Though this is an enormous book (800 pages), and it presents only a microscopic amount of the material, such a collection could contain, the editors do not rush their guests off the stage. For example, plates accompany some work where pertinent. There are reproductions of Blake's work, Dickinson's fascicles, an occasional painting integral to or standing as a text, and collages by Max Ernst, among others. Further, writing is given its room where necessary, as in the generous reproduction of Mallarmé's Coup de dès with its lush typography and grand use of white space.

As many of its supporters have suggested, Poems for the Millennium reconfigures poetic space for the first part of the twentieth century. It dismantles the halls of fame instituted by academic paparazzi and builds in their place an architecture that is more open and more suggestive of the possibilities of a poetry that is global in interest, ethnopoetically positioned, diverse in language of creation, and attentive to the important alliances which writing makes with the visual and other arts. This volume is complete in itself-and it is important to accept it as a complete work. Though one may look forward to the forthcoming second volume that will bring this anthology to the present (perhaps a much more difficult task without the advantage of a historical perspective), the great achievement is already here: we have before us a portrait like no other of the formative portion of a turbulent and fertile century, the prophecies of which we continue to inhabit.

1 For an excellent discussion of three of these anthologies see Hank Lazer's "Anthologies, Poetry, and Postmodernism" in Contemporary Literature 36, no. 2 (1995). Back to article